Alarms sounded in the minds of parents across the country this week with the release of a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The report detailed research on the brains of 202 former football players, concluding that nearly all of them had signs of a disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy. CTE is a debilitating disease in the most serious cases, and can include symptoms such as memory loss, depression, anxiety and explosive anger.
CTE was diagnosed in nearly 90 percent of the brains studied -- including a shocking 110 of 111 former NFL players and 48 of 53 college players.
The numbers, for obvious reasons, drew headlines and dominated talk radio. They also were cause for concern among the parents of youth football players. But local and area coaches all say “Not so fast.”
One of the most vocal in that group is Jefferson coach Clint Layng.
“The subject is something I follow pretty heavily. I’m just a football guy,” he said of research into CTE, which has been linked to repeated blows to the head and concussions. “My thoughts are that it’s definitely something that you have to be aware of and pay attention to and understand. But all of those guys that they did that study on, you’re talking about guys that played back in the days where the helmet technology isn’t near what it is now. I know my kids on my team wear helmets that are so much better than anything I ever wore or anything that those guys in the NFL wore. Our high school helmets now? I’ve got kids wearing helmets that you see guys in the NFL wearing when they play on Sunday. And I think the technology is only going to improve.”
Technology isn’t the only thing that has improved in the last five to 10 years.
As awareness grows, coaching methods have adapted and practices have changed.
A primary focus for coaches has become the teaching of safer tackling techniques to keep players from leading with their heads, instead initiating contact with their hands. Contact in practice has been greatly reduced.
Programs are also are working on exercises specifically designed to strengthen players’ necks. Concussions are often the result of a sudden change in direction of the head. Research is showing that stronger neck muscles can slow that whiplash effect, thereby potentially reducing the chance of a concussion.
These relatively recent changes, coaches say, are important. The study included former NFL players Bubba Smith, Ken Stabler, Dave Duerson and Ralph Wenzel. It also included former tight end Frank Wainright who, despite being one of the more recently retired players involved, still played before the league introduced stricter safety rules and concussion protocols.
“These guys they studied, back when they played, you could hit people however you wanted,” Layng said. “There was no such thing as targeting, there was no such thing as blindside, crack-back blocks. All of those things have been eliminated from the game now.
“There was no concussion protocol, either. There wasn’t even concussion protocol when I played in college,” added Layng, who recalled being knocked out on the field on a play as a college safety. After coming to, he went to the sideline, got a drink of Gatorade and was back in the game just a few plays later. “Generally, when guys got concussions back then, a lot of times you were put right back in the game -- and you sure weren’t missing the next game.”
While people may have been taken aback by the numbers in the CTE study, they should also be aware of what is happening at the local, high school level in terms of concussions, coaches say. Because those numbers are equally surprising, and show that huge steps are being made.
Now entering his seventh season at Jefferson, Layng said he’s had just one concussion sustained by a player in practice. That was, he noted, four years ago when the Panthers ran more live drills in practice. Since that season, full-contact drills have been vastly scaled back and there’s not been a concussion since.
The team has had two concussions in the last three years.
Even more impressive is Capital High.
“Last year in our program, we had one concussion -- across the board,” Bruin coach Kyle Mihelish said. “So when you talk about eight freshman games, 10 sophomore games, seven or eight JV games and 12 varsity games, with 60 or 70 snaps a game on both sides of the ball, we came out of last season with one concussion. And I attribute that to the way we teach our kids to tackle -- with our eyes up and our heads up. You make contact with your hands, you drive your feet and you play football the right way.
“In my mind, there’s probably more concussions in the NFL. When you have a guy who is 6-5, 260 pounds and runs a 4.4 40, and you have two guys like that in a collision, that’s quite an impact. It’s not the same at the high school level. And we do everything we can to teach the kids the right way to tackle. We do it every day in practice. We have tackling stations, and we work on it.”
The same holds true in Townsend, where coach Travis Rauh said that he hopes parents make sure to research the issue and not simply react to “scare tactic” type stories.
“Some people have some distorted ideas of what the safety level is in high school football, and we feel like we’re losing some players because of it.
“I guess the biggest thing is it would be nice if the public knew how much education coaches now have about concussions. There’s still, certainly, a risk. But I think with all the steps we’re taking today, the game is far more safe than it was even just a few years ago.”
Rauh added, however, that he believes there should be some restrictions on just when kids start playing tackle football.
“I do not support tackle football at very young ages,” he said. “I would be just fine with tackle football starting at the junior high level. They’ve got weaker necks, their heads aren’t as developed, and once they get concussions at a young age, they are more susceptible to getting them in the future.
“Some of the best teams we’ve had -- our State championship team a couple years ago -- never played Pee Wee football. I think that the idea that you have to have that to develop players that can play at the highest level, I think that’s very overrated. I think maybe extend flag football a little longer.”
In a story published by Forbes, Tyler C. Duffield, Ph.D., a pediatric neuropsychology fellow at Oregon Health & Science University’s Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, called for a measured reaction when considering young people and football.
“The strongest evidence suggests that a player’s mental health before an injury and their sleeping patterns and quality before and after the injury play a substantial role in their recovery and long-term outcomes,” he said. “I think these two factors should be of greater concern for parents of high school and college athletes than potential development of CTE later in life.”
Even the study’s author, Dr. Ann McKee, has tried to caution the gloom and doom reaction that many have made since the release of her findings.
In a story published by National Public Radio, she pointed out that all the brains studied were donated by families.
“Families don’t donate brains of their loved ones unless they’re concerned about the person. So all the players in this study, on some level, were symptomatic. That leaves you with a very skewed population,” she said.
“I’m worried about these numbers steering the conversation in that these numbers are of a very biased brain donation researched. But the fact that we found (CTE in that many players) is cause for concern. While I’m not willing to say football is doomed and I am unwilling to make a decision (on young people playing football) for other individuals … I think there’s a risk to playing football.”
No coach would argue that point.
It is, after all, a contact sport. Injuries, including concussions, are possible.
But there are also benefits to the game -- and those should count for something, too, coaches say.
“I’m not gonna be naïve and say that football is totally safe, you’re gonna be injury-free and all that,” Layng said. "But I think we’re taking proper steps to make sure it is safer. The equipment continues to improve, and if we continue to do the things we’re doing, it will help reduce the risk and it’s gonna be safer than it’s ever been. And I think the benefits that carry over into life are very important for a kid. It’ll have a positive impact on his life. It’s never going to be 100 percent safe. But I think the benefits outweigh all of that.”